May the Force Be With You (May 4th) Zen Wisdom From Star Wars! The Dao of Jedi

May 4th has become an iconic day for Star Wars fans across the universe.  “May The 4th Be With You” becomes “May The Force Be With You” quite nicely.  (If you already knew this, stifle that groan young Jedi, some of us didn’t know). And on this day, what better time to introduce one of the stranger and more delightful books to come out this year in Japan: Zen Wisdom From Star Wars (スター・ウォーズ 禅の教え エピソード4・5・6). It’s written by noted Soto Zen Buddhist priest, Shunmyo Masuno (枡野 俊明) and takes scenes and dialogue from the good episodes of the series to illustrate Zen Buddhist sayings and wisdom. (A full review will come later this month).

Zen Wisdom From Star Wars
Zen Wisdom From Star Wars

The book is well-written, with just enough English sprinkled in to make the book semi-accessible to those who can’t read Japanese or are still struggling to do so.  The books works better than you might imagine.

Zen Buddhism, was heavily influenced by Taoism, and George Lucas freely admits to having borrowed heavily from Taoism, Zen Buddhism, and Japanese culture in the creation of the Star Wars mythos.

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The book includes such pearls of wisdom as:

山川草木悉皆成仏 (Sansen Somuku Shikkai Jobutsu)/Everything is filled with the light of life (Everything has Buddha-nature).

安閑無事 (Ankan Buji)/Feel gratitude for everything no matter how small. Or rather: appreciate peace and quiet, health and safety. Because that won’t last forever. For example, affordable health care in America? Gone. (安閑無事が懐かしい)

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閑古錘 (Kankonsui)/Maturation and calm come as you accrue diverse experience.

Well, remember that Star Wars is just fiction, but good science fiction, and the words of wisdom in the movie were not said by Taoist sages or Jedi masters but written by screenwriters. However, if you want to know the philosophy and sayings that inspired the film, this book is a good place to start.

Or better yet, buy yourself a copy of The Tao Te Ching, and substitute the word “Force” everytime it mentions “Tao”.  According to the Star Wars English Japanese Dictionary, the Force (フォース) is all the energy derived from every living thing. The Tao, which is often described as being indescribable, is close to the same thing.

So for your further education, here are few words from The Force Te Ching

Force Te Ching

by Yoda- chapter 81

Truthful words are not beautiful.
Beautiful words are not truthful.
Good men do not argue.
Those who argue are not good.
Those who know are not learned.
The learned do not know.

The Jedi never tries to store things up.
The more he/she does for others, the more he/she has.
The more he/she gives to others, the greater his/her abundance.
The Force of The Light Side is pointed but does no harm.
The Force of the Jedi is work without effort.
(adapted from the Tao Te Ching translation by Gia-fu Feng and Jane English)

So until next year, May the Force Be With you!

フォースと共にあれ!

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Tokyo Private Eye (東京探偵) the sequel to Tokyo Vice coming in Spring of 2023, with Marchialy (France)

photo by Reylia Slaby

TOKYO PRIVATE EYE:

Investigation, Damnation, and Salvation In The Land Of The Setting Sun

Coming in Spring of 2023, published by Marchialy (France) 

The book opens on one of the most devastating days in Japan’s history, March 11, 2011, which left thousands dead and missing—and culminated in a triple nuclear meltdown. Our protagonist and narrator Jake Adelstein, seasoned American journalist turned private eye, who has brought back bags of supplies from the US to be taken to the disaster area by yakuza friends–discovers he’s having a meltdown of his own: liver cancer. 

Join Jake as he takes us back on a journey and recounts the events leading up to the disaster, the 2009 publication of his memoir TOKYO VICE: An American Reporter On The Police Beat in Japan, and how he became a corporate gumshoe. He picks up where he left off,  chronicling his other career, battling the yakuza and criminals as a due diligence investigator while battling his own worst enemy: himself.  Previously the only American journalist to have been admitted to the insular Tokyo Metropolitan Police Press Club, Jake covered extortion, murder, and human trafficking–fighting to make Japan recognize the problem. No longer a reporter but still trying to be a knight in dingy armor, he realizes that even a paladin has to earn a living. And instead of having 10 million readers now he’s writing reports that will only be read by three corporate executives.

This sequel to TOKYO VICE is written as a stand-alone volume and provides an in-depth history of the inner-workings of crime in Japan, and not just the gangsters. With each job assignment Jake learns more about industries rife with financial fraud, anti-social forces, corruption, and fraudulent bookkeeping–and how to spot a business that no client should engage with. 

The book is divided into three parts coinciding with the breakdown of Jake’s personal life in parallel with Japan’s meltdown and an in depth analysis of how the Yakuza operate: UNUSUAL EVENTS, MELTDOWN, and THE FALLOUT.

UNUSUAL EVENTS sets the stage for the state of Japan leading up to the meltdown. The yakuza, like many criminal organizations, were not born out of thin air. Their ranks have come from members of society who do not feel like they have a place.  Those marginalized by society such as the Korean-Japanese and burakumin, among others, were not given many opportunities by society, and were drawn into a life of crime.  

But it’s a high level of crime now. In fact, one day Japan’s equivalent of Classmates.com is taken over by a Yakuza front company. Information is king. 

Jake transitions into a career as a detective introducing a team of characters ranging from fight-til’-the-death former prosecutor Toshiro Igari to brave right-hand researcher and human trafficking victim advocate, Michiel Brandt. He makes new friends and enemies along the way–while dealing with the PTSD from the events that took place in Tokyo Vice by self-medicating with sleeping pills, booze, casual sex and clove cigarettes.

Learn how gangsters were gradually ousted from the financial markets by the due diligence of  dedicated investigators, rebel cops, and new laws.

Meanwhile, TOKYO VICE  is published but an old foe resurges — the ruthless yakuza Tadamasa Goto.  If Tokyo Vice was Jake’s attempt to ruin and get his nemesis ‘erased’– Goto outdoes him with the publication of his autobiography, Habakarinagara, loaded with veiled threats.  When Jake asks his mentor, Igari Toshiro, to help him take Goto to court, Igari bravely agrees but….. 

MELTDOWN lands us in a disrupted Japanese society. Jake learns he has liver cancer while Japan is in the midst of a nuclear meltdown. His “best friend forever” Michiel is diagnosed with leukemia for the fourth time while the corruption of the Japanese nuclear industry comes to light. 

Jake, hired to find out whether Tokyo Electric Power Company is responsible for the accident and what that would mean for investors, returns to his investigator roots with a renewed attitude to not give up and seeks out a new enemy to vanquish.

In chapters from the  FALLOUT like The Nine Digit Economy: How The Yakuza Turned Japan’s Stock Market Into Their Casino, he shows how and why the authorities felt that anti-social forces threatened the very foundations of Japan’s economy. 

Jake gets ahold of the most dangerous photo in Japan, showing the Vice President of Japan’s Olympic Committee with the head of the Yamaguchi-gumi, Japan’s largest yakuza group, but can he break the story before his own knees get broken? And in the process of reporting on the Olympics discovers that the biggest gang of all in Japan may be a political party, founded by war criminals including former Prime Minister Abe’s grandfather, yakuza, ultra-nationalists and funded by the CIA.

What’s the difference between the Liberal Democratic Party politicians and the much-feared Yamaguchi-gumi thugs? It may only really be the badges they wear on their lapel. 

While the book can be an enriching companion and sequel to TOKYO VICE: An American Reporter On The Police Beat in Japan, TOKYO PRIVATE EYE: Investigation, Damnation, and Salvation In The Land Of The Setting Sun is a memoir that can stand alone recounting the years 2007 to 2014 through the eyes of an intrepid reporter and gumshoe with three decades spent covering the dark side of the sun. 

Not only is it a riveting memoir about the life junctions we all face, including grief and career changes, but it also provides a working knowledge of Japanese organized crime, political corruption, the process of corporate investigations and shows the collusion between mafia, state, and business that led to a nuclear disaster.  It also shows that Japan’s biggest problems are not necessarily the fading yakuza. 

TOKYO VICE has been adapted for television into an eight episode straight-to-series on HBO Max starring Ansel Elgort playing Jake Adelstein. The series also stars Ken Watanabe and is written and executive produced by Tony Award-winning playwright J. T. Rogers (Jake’s high school senpai)  with Endeavor Content serving as the studio. Michael Mann directed the pilot episode and served as executive producer. 

Jake Adelstein is one of few experts on Japanese organized crime and the underworld. A former special correspondent for the LA Times, he has written for the Times, the Washington Post, the Japan Times and Vice. His other two books, Le Dernier Des Yakuzas (2017) J’ai Vendu Mon âme En Bitcoins (2019) with Nathalie Stucky, have both been published by Marchialy in France, his “third home.” He currently writes for the Daily Beast, the Asia Times, Tempura in France, and ZAITEN.

Jake Adelstein has published three books with Marchialy in France. They’re not just his publishers, they’re family.

     *Press release cover photo by Reylia Slaby 

A Farewell To Japan’s King of Toxic Masculinity: Shintaro Ishihara

by Kaori Shoji

At least it wasn’t a long, protracted goodbye. Ishihara would have hated that. 

On February 1st, Shintaro Ishihara, long-time ex-governor of Tokyo and former Minister of Transportation (among other credentials) died. He was 89 years old. He was one of the last guardians of Japanese patriarchy as well as a charismatic politician. The unapologetic, racist, brash and chauvinist Ishihara had both supporters and opponents, including Yuriko Koike, the current mayor of Tokyo who was the first woman to hold the position. Ishihara referred to her on more than one occasion as ‘obasan (old woman)’ and Koike accused the man of running Japan’s capital city into the ground. 

(Editor’s note: Even Koike can be right. Shinginko Tokyo, the bank created by Ishihara using Tokyo’s funds was a tremendous failure, leaving huge debts behind. However it did provide a windfall for Kanto yakuza).

Ishihara hated outspoken women and liberal men; he had no kind feelings for the US and refused to be enthralled or intimidated by western culture. Ishihara reserved his most acidic venom for China. For thirty years, he railed against the government in Beijing and demanded that Tokyo annex the non-populated Senkaku Islands (located several hundred miles north of the Yaeyama Islands in Okinawa) instead of permitting Chinese fishermen to fish there.

In 2002, a group of Tokyo women tried to take him to court for inappropriate statements made on TV, in which he expressed agreement with a Tokyo University professor that “women who are past their child-bearing years should not live on until old age. Men can propagate the species until their 80s and 90s but women living into their 80s is a disease of civilization.”

The man was a rightist, elitist, racist, misogynist, patriarchal pig. I hope I didn’t leave out anything. 

But he also had an unmistakable, evocative allure, what in Japanese is known as ‘hana’.  It was hana that kept him in the Governor’s seat for over a decade and hana that launched his bestsellers, like The Japan That Can Say No and Genius.

Ishihara had a bit of Donald Trump in him but unlike the ex-prez he had no interest in flaunting his women and stuck with the same wife he married in 1955. As Tokyo governor he wielded an influence on par with New York counterpart Andrew Cuomo, though Ishihara never got slapped with a harassment suit. 

There were always rumors of shady doings going on inside his lavish office in the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building. A handful of young female aides quit with generous severance payouts. A male assistant tried to commit suicide because he couldn’t stand the Governor’s bullying. 

Now that Ishihara’s gone, any dirty secrets will stay firmly bolted in the closet (maybe). Japanese political staff are for the most part, exceedingly loyal and any boss worth their salt knows it. Back in 2002, I was at Ishihara’s press conference and was struck by how his staff anticipated his every word and the slightest of head-nods, rushing to follow his orders before they were even given. Tall, imposing and suave, he made most of his contemporaries look like scrapings from a drain pipe. One thing you have to admit: he was well-bred, well-read and carried himself accordingly. 

Born in Kobe in 1932 to wealthy parents, Ishihara was a novelist before becoming a politician, and a politician before becoming Tokyo’s longest serving governor. At the age of 21 when he was at Hitotsubashi University, Ishihara won the Akutagawa Award (Japan’s highest literary prize) for Taiyo no Kisetsu (Season of the Sun) which was adapted for the screen starring his younger brother Yujiro.

The hatred of women and smug arrogance permeates the literary work of Shintaro Ishihara. “A heterosexual Mishima without the finesse”

Editor’s note: That the book won a literary prize says terrible things about Japan in the 1960s. The book was later translated as Season of Violence and this review from GoodReads sums it up succinctly:

Heterosexual Mishima — which is to say not written with any grace or artful tact but with a similar vision of violent machismo and drama: erections breaking through paper (shoji) doors and young rapists clinging to life as they drag their cut apart bodies across the street, prostitutes at sea, cruelty as sport and pastime. Tatsuya in the eponymous novella is so terrible and frightening it made me sick.

‘What have I been to you all these weeks?’ 

“A woman,” he shrugged.

Together, the Ishihara brothers created a brand not unlike a powerful mafia family. While Shintaro sired four boys and did his best to dent what he saw as Nagatacho’s (Tokyo’s equivalent of Capitol Hill) slavish, pro-American policies. Yujiro formed his own film production company called Ishihara Gundan (Ishihara Army Corps), mimicking big bro’s penchant for strutting machismo. 

He had no offspring but had a knack for gathering tall, muscular male performers into the Ishihara brand orbit. Yujiro was probably the first Japanese male to pull off a leather jacket over tight jeans and have sex on the beach in front of a camera. Shintaro was a badass nationalist with a big mouth. In his youth, he wore bespoke suits and palled around with Yukio Mishima. When the latter committed seppuku, Ishihara arrived at the scene to show his moral support and politely tell the press to f*ck off. 

Yukio and Shintaro: buddies in misanthropy and homoerotic nationalism

Shintaro outlived his little brother by 35 years but cancer got him in the end. On the day, his widowed sister-in-law (herself an actress who starred in Season of the Sun) appeared in the media to express her sadness.His four sons, two of whom are politicians, appeared in the news to attest to their dad’s astonishing vitality. “He kept writing, right up until a week ago,” said second son Yoshizumi Ishihara, who is a successful actor and emcee. His eldest, Nobuteru Ishihara who two months before had quit his position as advisor to Prime Minister Kishida, after losing in the general elections to the daughter of a vegetable seller and single mother, said tearfully that he hoped he could live up to his old man. 

However, even Ishihara’s most vocal critics grudgingly admit that when the chips were down, he was someone you could rely on. 

When the 3.11 disaster struck Northeast Japan he moved to send aid and resources to Fukushima and the Tohoku area faster than any other prefecture. He worked to remove almost 170,000 tons of rubble and trash from the tsunami-hit region and cart the loads into Tokyo for disposal, despite strong opposition from the capital city residents. When asked how the Metropolitan Office should respond to irate Tokyoites, he held a press conference to say “These people should be told to shut up. There’s nothing else to say to them. I mean, how selfish can these people get?”

He arranged housing for people who lost their homes and was also responsible for building shelters for domestic violence victims. Personally, I was always grateful that he banned diesel vehicles from Tokyo streets and delivered much on his promise to green up the city. 

Ishihara was a monstrous mass of contradictions and in the end, he couldn’t keep up with newfangled notions of gender equality, BLM, diversity and tolerance and globalism. That being said, I know I’m not the only one who feels Tokyo has lost something. It’s probably for the better but all the same, we’ll never get it back. 

****

Shintaro Says The Darndest Things 

After Yoshiro Mori was fired from the Tokyo Olympics Committee for saying that women’s speeches tended to be too long, the same committee should have made clear the length of the speech(es) in question. Otherwise, it’s unfair. 

From his online column, Feb. 12, 2021 

The preface of the Japanese constitution reeks of white supremacy and is strewn with grammatical errors, as if it had been hastily translated from English to Japanese by a bad translator. 

From ‘Will’ magazine, July 2020 

The most stellar evidence of true manhood is self-sacrifice for the greater good. 

From sankei.com, Dec. 19, 2016 

Recently, I’ve been witnessing male actors impersonating females on television. What does this mean? Has the world decayed and gone mad? 

Tweeted in 2017

The rise in gays and lesbians….I can only think that these people are genetically subnormal. Poor things, they’re minorities in society. 

Statement made in 2010 

Driving In Winter With Haruki Murakami… and Why We Still Need Him

by Kaori Shoji 

Drive My Car which opened last August 2021, was one of the best things to hit Japanese theaters in years. Yet many Japanese cinephiles or people who footed it to theaters in spite of the pandemic, quietly gave it a miss. Two weeks later audiences were willing to sit through the new 007 movie with masks on throughout the nearly 3 hour duration, refused to pay the same tribute to what is effectively the first successful cinema adaptation of a Haruki Murakami short story by a fellow Japanese. Shame on us. Drive My Car bagged three awards at Cannes including Best Screenplay, (the first such feat for a Japanese filmmaker) and won the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Film. It’s now firmly placed on track for an Oscar. 

From 村上春樹語辞典 (Dictionary Of Haruki Murakami Words) There must always be something that vanishes, a mysterious girl (woman), jazz and coffee.

So never mind the box office beating. The careers of director/writer Ryusuke Hamaguchi and lead actor Hidetoshi Nishijima went on a meteoric ascent as Hamaguchi picked up the Silver Bear at the Berlin Film Festival for Wheels Of Fortune And Fantasy months before Drive My Car and is now being inundated with offers from Hollywood and Netflix. Veteran lead actor Hidetoshi Nishijima was all over the media in TV and film last year before giving his best performance yet in Drive...He was named Best Actor by the US Films Critics Award, the first for an Asian actor. 

Through it all, the 43-year old Hamaguchi appeared unfazed. In interviews he has stated that Japan isn’t his only playing field though he has professed a love for its cinema industry and in early 2020, he crowdfunded over 330 million yen to save arthouse theaters from Covid bankruptcy. Hamaguchi discipled under Kiyoshi Kurosawa, another auteur whose international reputation has come to overshadow his Japanese notoriety. Under Kurosawa, Hamaguchi learned the ropes of competing in the film fest circuit, dealing with foreign distributors and grooming his stories for global appeal. Otherwise, Hamaguchi is a visionary filmmaker with a special flair for intricate and nuanced storytelling, which comes to the fore in Drive My Car. He took a 40-page Murakami short story and leavened it up to a running time of 3.5 hours, adding Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, Korean actors and the Hiroshima City backdrop in the mix. Through Hamaguchi’s careful doctoring, Murakami’s original story was reborn with much more weight and muscle, able to grapple with emotions that have both urgency and relevance. This is some serious cinema alchemy we’re looking at here. 

On the other hand, Hamaguchi is respectful of Murakami and makes sure the film has the author’s logo stamped all over it. There’s no mistaking the elegant lassitude permeating the storyline, the finicky intellectualism and inherent narcissism of the characters. The only factor that strikes a non-Murakami chord is the presence of Toko Miura, who plays a woman named Misaki. She’s a chauffer with a skeleton or two in the closet of her mind and she’s at once fragile and tough, capable and vulnerable. In Murakami’s story, Misaki serves as a young, female sounding board for the protagonist’s inner musings. In Hamaguchi’s film, her importance goes up several notches and she’s recreated into a women with her own agenda and personal demons, who’s not there to be sexually objectified or soothe anyone. Miura, who used to work part-time at a Tokyo gas stand when she wasn’t working as an actress, is now one of the most watchable performers in the Japanese film industry and Drive My Car owes a huge chunk of its success to her prowess. 

Still, being a Murakami story, Drive My Car ultimately comes off as tale of male ego, or more to the point, the taming of it. Nishijima plays a slender, 50-ish man named Kafuku (an obvious play on the name ‘Kafuka’ from the Murakami bestseller “Kafka By the Sea”), a stage actor who discovers that his wife Oto (played by a splendid Reika Kirishima) has been sleeping around. Kafuku has been semi-aware of Oto’s infidelity but when confronted with the scene of her having sex with another man, his mind shuts down. That night, Oto is found dead from a brain hemorrhage and Kafuku retreats into a shell of wordless grief.

From 村上春樹語辞典 (Dictionary Of Haruki Murakami Words)

Two years later, Kafuku accepts a residency position in Hiroshima and he’s introduced to Misaki, who has been hired to drive him to and from the theater in his car (a Saab 900, of course). Through their brief conversations finds himself able to face Oto again, not as a wife who betrayed him but a woman in her own right. In the meantime he collaborates with Korean actors for the stage production of Uncle Vanya and builds a rapport with Takatsuki (Masaki Okada), who had been Oto’s last lover. 

Murakami’s story is part of a compilation titled Men Without Women, a fate which, in the Murakami scheme of things is akin to death by torture. Men cannot exist without women or their fantasies and much of Murakami’s words are devoted to describing the subtleties of their allure. In his fiction the female is never objectified outright but she’s not to allowed to exist outside the confines of the male ego, either. Murakami always hands over the reigns of power to his women characters, making sure they will never abuse it. If she gets too much for the man to handle, she tends to make a fast exit. Like Oto. Or Naoko from his trademark novel Norwegian Wood. 

This Murakami penchant is in perfect keeping with the Japanese literary tradition and reveals, that for all the Americanisms and western-liberal icons/props scattered across the pages of each and every one of Murakami’s works, the master is in fact, a traditionalist. The combination was dazzling and exotic back in the 20th century. Personally I likened a Murakami novel to a cool, fizzy drink ordered in a bar in an American military base, not that I could set foot in such a place. But two decades plus into the 21st century, the magic of Murakami’s words come off as nostalgic and quaint. It took an alchemist like Ryusuke Hamaguchi to filter out the antiquated grunge of the original short story and upcycle it into a masterpiece. 

For all that, many of us who grew up on Murakami are not ready to cancel him altogether. Generations of Japanese owe him for showing us a world outside the archipelago, for writing about jazz and beer and summer afternoons spent swimming laps at the pool, for dedicating an entire book to marathon running as a pleasurable hobby, for girls who enjoy sex and own up to their sexuality, for boys who are clumsy about relationships but bafflingly knowledgeable about coffee. We owe him for being easily translatable and comprehensible to an international audience that would otherwise equate Japan with anime and karoshi (death by overwork). 
Maybe Haruki Murakami can’t carry the brand on his own anymore but that happens to every established business with a recognizable logo. And now that Ryusuke Hamaguchi has set the precedent, more Murakami adaptations are sure to follow. If you’ll excuse the slightly nationalistic tone, it’s a good time to be Japanese.

Editor’s note: If you’re a fan of Haruki Murakami, with a sense of humor, be sure to avail yourself of a copy of 村上春樹語辞典 (Dictionary of Haruki Murakami Words) which is tongue in cheek tribute and guide to his writings. Even if you don’t read Japanese, the great illustrations, the haiku-like use of English, and the pin-pointing of his common themes and motifs is a delight to read.

From 村上春樹語辞典 (Dictionary Of Haruki Murakami Words)

My Brushes With the Yakuza – Reflections of Life in Akasaka, Tokyo

My first encounter with the ‘yakuza’ or the crooks and gangsters of Japan’s underworld, happened when I was 14 years old, on my way home from cram school. It was around 10 PM and having no friends who lived my way, I found myself walking alone through a deserted back street when a man in a loud red shirt and loose trousers seemingly materialized out of nowhere and stood blocking my way. In vain I tried to pass, and then brought my book bag up to my chest, probably to protect myself. “You’re out late,” he sniggered, edging closer. “Do you want to make some money? It will be so easy. Let’s go somewhere and we’ll talk about it.”


Could this really be happening? I felt the blood pounding behind my ears and my vision go black around the edges as I stood there paralyzed. After what felt like an hour but couldn’t have been more than a second or two, another voice came out of the dark. “What are you doing? Don’t waste time, we got things to do.” An older man drawing on a cigarette joined us. “What the hell are you playing at? Let’s go,” he said to the shirt and then to me, “sorry. Were you scared? You must have been. Be safe going home, your parents will be worried about you.”

Without a word, I fled and didn’t look over my shoulder until I was safely in front of my apartment building.

I learned later that this was an old yakuza tactic. There was always the younger guy who came on strong, and the older man who stepped in, seemingly to admonish him and then rescue you. But if you showed signs of hesitation at leaving, or showed up at the same spot the next evening, they would snatch you up. Later, they would blackmail the victim’s father into making cash payments in return for silence and the assurance that the incident will not crab his daughter’s chances of making a good marriage.

As anachronistic as this sounds, similar scenarios still play out all over Japan. Having any connection to the yakuza, even if it’s innocuous or remote, can spell disaster for the average, law-abiding Japanese. It could sabotage their chances of getting into private schools. Jeopardize their job applications to good corporations. And will likely botch up marriage prospects between respectable families. The yakuza are well aware of the fear and suspicion they trigger, and will milk it for all it’s worth. Blackmail and extortion continue to comprise a huge chunk of yakuza revenue. In 2020 alone, they made over 28.5 billion yen from just such practices, according to Asahi Shimbun.


That first encounter left a mark of some kind, subtly swerving my life in a certain direction. I longed to quit school and hang out in smokey coffee shops. I pined to get away from the boring, oppressive place called ‘home.’ My parents complained that I had ‘loose morals’ and would come to a ‘bad end’ unless I buckled down to my studies and became more serious about my future. “You’re not ‘katagi,” my mother would say, which means ‘solid citizen.’ In Japan, once you stepped off the rails of ‘katagi’ you were out of the game, and no one gave you a second chance. The opposite of ‘katagi’ of course, was ‘yakuza.’


In spite of my parents’ dire predictions, I somehow made it to adulthood, marriage and a baby. After about three years, my family and I moved into an apartment building in a town called Akasaka, famous for its criminally expensive real estate, high-end restaurants, exclusive bars, a lucrative sex trade and a sizable yakuza population. This was in the tail end of the 90s, when the Tokyo yakuza had the staunch support of right wing governor Shintaro Ishihara and were seemingly invincible. In Akasaka, they were the best-dressed people on the streets, with impeccably tailored suits and Italian silk ties. They were driven around in sleek German sedans and slurped their soba noodles in the same restaurant as the Cabinet Ministers who came down from the nearby Diet Building. Consequently the streets were perpetually crawling with security people, cops in uniform and police detectives. The combination of law enforcement, politicians and gangsters made it impossible for anyone to get out of line.


Akasaka was the safest place in Tokyo.


My neighbor, who lived on the same floor and whose daughter went to the same day-care as my own, was the son and heir to Tokyo’s most powerful yakuza clan. He drove a sparkling white Mercedes and would often give me a lift as I walked down the slope to the subway station. He was always elaborately polite with me and his wife and daughter often came over for dinner when he was “late at work.” By an unspoken agreement, we never talked about this “work” or even referred to him in conversation. One day when I suggested that we take a photo together with our girls, the wife looked uncomfortable and then refused outright. That night, realizing that I had committed an unforgivable faux pas, I couldn’t sleep. After that, she didn’t come around as much and a year later, announced that they were moving out of the building to a condo on the other side of Akasaka.

This thawed the ice between us and we laughed together like the old days. “We’re not abandoning Akasaka,” she said. “This whole town is just right for us.”


I too, found it hard to tear myself away from Akasaka even as I watched the oldest and richest properties being sold off to overseas investors, mainly from Hong Kong and China. From the early aughts to about 2012, the Japanese economy sank into the marshlands of a twenty year recession, and chipped away at the glamorous, old-money prestige of Akasaka. Companies went bankrupt. A famed record company downsized, and then moved away. Small businesses folded, and the premises were bought out by discount shop franchises.


I started working at a neighborhood cafe to supplement the dwindling income I made from journalism, for 900 yen an hour. It was a charming place, a real Tokyo coffee shop with Richard Ginori crockery and a little booth for roasting the beans, Fifteen minutes into my first shift, the owner/proprietor took a call on his cell phone and  after a few words, hung up and told me to cordon off the best table in the place, because ‘an important customer’ was arriving in exactly 45 minutes.

At the appointed time, a black BMW drove up to the cafe entrance. Two burly men were already waiting, and opened the heavy glass door of the cafe for an elderly man who had been helped out of the vehicle by his driver. The man came in, wielding a walking stick, and sat down at the table. No one said a word. My employer quietly poured out a cup of ‘blue mountain’ coffee which at 1200 yen a cup, was the most expensive item on the menu. The man picked up his coffee and sipped slowly. The tension was so thick you had to hack it with an ice pick, and I could feel the blood pounding behind my ears all over again. After he finished, the man spoke a few words to the two burly men, and one of them got up and paid the bill as the other got on his phone. In a matter of a seconds, the BMW was parked at the entrance and the elderly man got up. The three men left, and after making sure that they were truly gone, the owner gave me a sickly smile and said: “this happens at least once a week. You’d better get used to it.” It turned out that the elderly man was a yakuza boss and the cafe was his favorite haunt.


After that, I discovered that while the boss might show up once a week, his underlings and his personal driver was there most days. They monopolized the terrace seating area, smoking incessantly and ordering innumerable cups of coffee, talking in undertones or laughing raucously. When they were there, the regular customers – salarimen from neighboring web design companies and editors from a jazz magazine, avoided the place like the plague.


There was no denying that the yakuza were the cafe’s best customers and when they were there I rushed around with trays of coffee and cheese cake, replacing full ashtrays with clean ones and refilling glasses with iced water poured from a stainless steel pitcher. The yakuza are very particular about the establishments where they take their coffee which is why you won’t see any of them at a Starbucks. I became a little chummy with the boss’s driver who lived in the neighborhood. He told me to ignore him if we met in the street. “Pretend you don’t know me. Believe me, it’s for your own good. But in here, we’re friends, okay?”


In the mornings, the Korean hostesses working in the cabaret club owned by the clan, would come in to nurse their hangovers and air their complaints. Though they spoke Japanese well enough, they couldn’t read the text messages sent by their clients and often asked me to do so. Some of the messages were disgustingly racy, others were declarations of love or modest invitations to go out.


“So what does this guy want with me?,” asked Jun, a pretty 24-year old girl from Inchon who had the unfortunate habit of grinding out her cigarette in her piece of half-eaten marmalade toast. “Says he wants to play golf with you before taking this relationship to the next level,” I read out loud. “Ohhh. Is he going to pay me to play golf?” “I don’t know and you probably shouldn’t ask that over a text message.” “Japanese men are such wimps.” “No kidding!”


I worked at the cafe for two and a half years before the owner went bust and sold the place to a Korean businessman who happened to be a distant relation of Jun. In the end, my employer disappeared, owing me two weeks wages. I heard that he returned to Akasaka six months later, and was working in a rotisserie chicken shop. By that time, the cafe had changed completely, its air of old world charm completely quashed by the new owners. The clan stopped frequenting the place, and moved on to somewhere else. The driver was gone too, and I never saw him again.


In 2018, my husband said that he had had enough of Akasaka and wanted to move. I was inclined to agree. The entire neighborhood was a shadow of what it had once been. Small, green plots of land and shrine-owned gardens were paved over and turned into parking lots or hideous houses. The once flourishing love hotels were torn down and Internet cafes went up in their places, with cheap private rooms catering to salarimen and prostitutes. Little dark bars went bankrupt and were replaced by glaringly lit convenience stores. Korean restaurants with plastic storefronts muscled their way into quiet alleyways. In the midst of it all, many of the yakuza moved out. The streets filled up with Chinese tourists and digital nomads toting backpacks.


The boss with a penchant for ‘blue mountain’ coffee was in a posh nursing home, or so I was told by the gossipy grandma working the counter at a tobacco shop, which soon closed down.


After we moved, memories of working at the cafe and my brushes with the Akasaka underworld went sepia toned like a sequence in a cheesy Hollywood movie. And then it all came back this August, as I followed the trial of Satoru Nomura, head of the notorious Kudo-kai. This is Japan’s most powerful yakuza clan that had terrorized Kokura City in Fukuoka prefecture where they had their headquarters, for the last 3 decades. On August 24 Nomura was sentenced to death by the District Court in Fukuoka – marking the first time in the history of Japanese law that a gangster boss received such a verdict. Usually the bosses are immune to societal rules and their crimes go unpunished since the clans always have a set number of young thugs in the ranks to shoulder the blame. They go to prison with promises of being welcomed back into the organization once they get out, with hefty salaries and underlings of their own to kick around. And in the meantime, their families will be well taken care of, nothing to worry about there.


This time however, the District Court made it clear that they were trying Nomura as an individual criminal and not as a clan head, thus severing the chain of command that would have placed all the blame on an underling.


I had met just such an underling in the cafe, during my second August of working there and the memory has a special poignance because this man had seemed so pitiful, He came in at around 5PM, dressed in a suit that was too big for him, with a tie frayed on the ends. He looked around with something akin to sheer, delighted giddiness, saw there was a female on the premises and immediately started talking to me. He had just gotten out of prison. He hadn’t seen a woman in five years. He was longing to touch a woman’s skin, and the desire was enough to make him scream. Can he touch me please? (The cafe owner intervened at this point, and asked him not to harass the staff.)


He complained that his legs were aching from sitting in a chair, since he had gotten used to sitting on a prison floor with his calves tucked under his knees, like a Buddhist monk or a tea master. He had an upset stomach too, from eating restaurant food after years of prison fare. “My god, but this all feels so good! It’s so great to be out!”


I brought his coffee, which he spiked with many spoonfuls of sugar and a dollop of cream. “You don’t know how I’ve been waiting for this moment,” he said, before taking a big swallow and coughing most of it up, all over his shirt. He laughed it off and started to sip slowly. “I’m only 30, I feel like an old man. Five years of my life down the drain. But I’m determined to have a woman, every single night for a whole year! Just watch me!” By this time, the only remaining customer in the cafe was the yakuza who had come in with him, obviously the caretaker, who looked none too happy with his charge.


After that, the ex-con came to the cafe several times. He never tried to talk to me again, though he always had a smile plastered to his face and wore a new suit that fit. I heard him say to my employer that prison caused him to shed 15 kilos and he always felt tired. “But I can still have sex! That’s great, right? That’s what counts, right?”


The last time I saw him, he had taken off his shoes and was sitting with his calves tucked under his knees, atop the hard backed chair of the cafe. He was smiling beatifically, humming out of tune to a Coldplay song coming over the speakers. A short while later, two men who I’d never seen before came in and said a few words to him. He nodded, still smiling and put on his shoes. After paying for his coffee, he bowed deeply to my employer and then to me, before turning his back and walking out.

What This Means (a short-story about love and marriage in Japan during the pandemic)

by Kaori Shoji

credit: Kaori Shoji

Rikako, my wife, was staying with her best friend from university, the one that hung around her all these years and never got married. She was pretty attractive too, the last time I saw her, which was what, 10 years ago? Now I couldn’t remember what this friend’s name was. Something that didn’t end in ‘ko’ meaning ‘child.’  In Japanese, the ‘ko’ at the end of a name indicated that the person was female which in this day and age, can raise questions about misogyny or gender discrimination but let’s just put that aside for now. 

In Rikako’s case, the written characters of her name stood for ‘wisdom,’ ‘fragrance,’ and ‘child,’ and Rikako said she often felt uncomfortable by the sight of her written name. “It’s a little demeaning,” she had said, wrinkling her nose as if she smelled something bad. “Makes me feel like a little girl.” Then Rikako would get that look on her face, which was supposedly a cue for me to say something like “but you are my little girl. You’ll always be a young girl to me.” And then she would pretend to pout which was another cue for me to massage the back of her feet, and then we’d head off to the bedroom or just fuck on the floor. But for years I hadn’t taken that bait. I mean, come on, we’re both 45. That kind of ritual just doesn’t work anymore, not that it did when we were in our thirties. 

Back then we were just living together and not officially married. But Rikako loved planning what she phrased as ‘the inevitable event’ down to the last minute detail. She showed me sketched drawings of ‘my ideal dress’ and ‘the ultimate bouquet,’ and littered the living room with brochures from tons of wedding companies. She was adorable in her adoration of all things wedding and I would steal glances at her profile, poring over the menu cards or venue decorations. Not that it made any sense to me. All that trouble and fuss, not to mention the expense! It was horrendous. But if my little girl wanted to get married in a ridiculous white dress, then it was up to me to smile and nod approval and go along with it. 

One of the things I least like about Rikako is how she continues to think and behave like a young woman when very clearly, she’s not. Not, not, not. The topics she chose to talk about, her gestures and her ‘weekend loungewear’ supposedly chosen to stimulate our sex life, ended up being embarrassing, especially during these past few months of a global pandemic. Suddenly, we were  trapped in each other’s company for weeks on end, since both our companies mandated that we work from home. I didn’t know what to do with her, how to be with her and certainly not on a 24/7 basis in the confines of a cell-box Tokyo apartment. And she, on the other hand, was  annoyed by every little thing I did, or didn’t. That’s not precisely why she left but I’m choosing to blame it all on Covid. 

On the last Saturday of July 2020, Rikako announced that she was leaving “this life” with me, so she could “learn to breathe deeply again” in the house of her friend who didn’t have a ‘ko’ at the end of her name. She spent the morning packing, made some coffee which she poured out for the both of us, said something about the laundry and walked out the door with the big Samsonite, the one we both took turns using in the days when frequent business trips were the norm. I almost said, “Wait, I may want to use that” but I didn’t because I wouldn’t. Ever again, if the news was anything to go by. At this rate experts said, we would be lucky to start traveling again in late 2023 or thereabouts. 

I knew what she was expecting. That I would turn up at her girlfriend’s place, looking worse for wear, abashed and contrite and promising to do better. That I needed her, oh so much. That we would go away to an onsen for the weekend, and tell each other that the last three months hadn’t done any damage to our marriage. Just thinking these thoughts made me ore than slightly queasy, or inclined to kick the toilet lid which stayed flipped open, thanks very much. 

I didn’t. Go out to whatshername’s place, that is. I just stayed in our apartment for which I paid the mortgage every month and suddenly seemed airy and spacious. I worked during the day. Sometimes I did the laundry, otherwise I let my underwear pile up in the washing machine. I lost interest in mealtimes and ate whenever I felt hungry, on whatever tasted like something I wanted to eat. I played Assassin’s Creed until dawn. 

Now, three weeks after Rikako’s departure I would go for nocturnal walks around the neighborhood and stand by the river to watch the surface of the water break into choppy ripples. I would cruise the convenience stores and stock up on packets of salami and cheese. It was so intensely pleasurable, so immensely liberating, that on these walks I would take off my mask to let out a silent scream of joy. 

Marriage is hugely overrated. I was told it was the only route to happiness but I realize now it was a device that worked only when Rikako and I were putting in eighty-hour weeks at our respective jobs, and so burned out that self-reflection and long, winding discussions and bringing each other up to speed on what we wanted out of life I don’t know, all the stuff that married couples seem to do in Hollywood movies–seemed like an obscene waste of scant resources. 

Then the pandemic whirled into our lives and presented a whole new playing field. I was fine with being married to Rikako, but I sure as hell was not prepared to be with her day and night. No man should be asked to do that, at least not in a one-bedroom condo with both of us trying to work and Zoom and use the toilet, sometimes all at once. 

She claimed it was much worse for her and was relentless about letting me know it. 

“I hate the sight of you in those sweats.” “

You’re playing games all the time, can’t you rent a car and take me out on the weekends?” 

“I’m not your mother, don’t make me pick up your clothes.” “

The toilet’s dirty, you never clean it.” “

I’m not your mother, I can’t make your meals all the time.” “

I’m not your mother, stop acting like an overgrown kid.” 

In the old days, Rikako and I were buddies most of the time, united in our shared lifestyle choices. Our own condo unit in a nice Tokyo neighborhood. Both of us were career driven, with a joint savings account. Overseas vacations, preferably twice a year. And no kids, never. That discussion was over and done with when we decided to make it all official, and hold a ‘resort wedding’ in Karuizawa. Rikako had said at the time, and I’m quoting verbatim here: “I have no interest in becoming a mother and sacrificing my career and my looks and identity to that undertaking. It’s so meaningless, it’s so thankless.” 

“I have no interest in becoming a mother and sacrificing my career and my looks and identity to that undertaking. It’s so meaningless, it’s so thankless.” 
credit: Kaori Shoji

Did I judge her for that? Hell no. My mother shook her head and told me I would be lonely in my old age and that it wasn’t too late to walk out of this relationship and find a nice girl who would give me a family. I told my mother it was none of her business and stuck by Rikako. We had shared too much of our lives together to call it quits. Besides, she still looked good at 35 and I wasn’t getting any younger. I doubted I would run into anyone so desirable again. 

Mostly though, I was too exhausted from work to deal with it. I’m an aeronautical engineer and one of the core members of a government sponsored team that designs manned space vehicles. For the last 15 years, I was flying out to Houston to work with NASA every month or so, and deadlines popped up on my screen every 15 minutes. I was working weekends,   past midnight, sometimes until dawn. Until the pandemic hit, I could honestly say that Red Bull was my dearest friend. 

When Rikako and I finally tied the knot ten years ago, I was already looking forward to old age and some rock-solid downtime. Retirement seemed to me a glorious mirage of frosted cocktails, glimpsed in the burning desert of my work routine. I was Ralph Fiennes in “The English Patient,” trudging on the hot dunes forever and ever but knowing that eventually, Juliette Binoche would turn up to dress my wounds and whisper to me with a French accent that “everything was going to be okay.” We had the movie on Blu-ray. It was Rikako’s favorite and we would watch it on Saturday nights when I managed to be home. I kept losing the thread of the narrative because I always fell asleep but in the end, yeah, I got it. Ralph Fiennes: What an old dog. The guy is dying and delirious and he still can’t keep his mind off women. 

These days though, I think about old Ralph a lot. I ask myself what images would parade through my brain when I’m ready to kick the bucket and I have to admit, it’s not work. Women. It would be women, whether they had the ‘ko’ on their names or not. No doubt Rikako’s face would be one of them but there would be others. My life isn’t completely barren. There are some unforgettable visages and bodies and they’ll all come back to me as I lie there on a hospital bed. 

There’s one woman I’m sort of obsessed about now. I haven’t slept with her. I don’t know her name. She’s around 14, probably in her second year of middle school. Yes I know what this sounds like but I promise, this isn’t heading in that direction. This woman – this girl whom I privately named ‘Naoko’ after a girl in my neighborhood when we were both growing up – is someone I used to see in the subway station every morning as I commuted to work. 

Naoko is tall for her age, lanky and lean and tanned, with short hair that’s carefully tucked behind her ears. She’s always carrying around a big sports bag emblazoned with her school logo, and printed underneath are the words ‘Track and Field Team.’ She’s a runner, and I’m betting by her physique that she goes for the 400 meter. I was an 800 meter boy myself and I see all the signs of a mid-distance sprinter: the way she holds her head, the snatches of conversation I sometimes overhear when she’s talking to her friends, the condition of her calves extending from her pleated uniform skirt and ending in socks and a pair of brown loafers. 

The sight of her takes me right back to the days when I was training night and day to compete in the nationals and get a full-ride scholarship to one of the good universities. She even looks a little like my girlfriend of those days, whom I could  see only once every three weeks because the rest of my time was eaten up with running and school. 

Am I lusting after Naoko? To my utter relief, the answer is no. It’s a huge relief to be able to say that because otherwise I would be betraying the straight-backed, fresh-faced teenager that I once was. No, I just yearn to talk to her, encourage her, be a part of her life somehow. I think about how wonderful it would be if I had a daughter like her. We would share running stories and I could coach her on pacing and rhythm. I would tell her that mid-distance sprinting is the most intelligent of track sports and how rewarding it was to…

A buzz on my phone. I go take a look at it and it’s a message from Rikako. “I want to come home. I’ll see you in two hours or so. I’m sorry about having left but I think we both needed this break from each other.” 

After about 10 seconds of rumination, I send back a smiley face and the words: “I’ll be waiting.” 

My imaginary conversation with Naoko had already shattered into a million pieces and those pieces were floating around in the air. I sigh, turn off the air conditioner and go open some windows. I’m still trying to process the fact that Rikako will be back, marking the end of my days of freedom. I guess what this means now is that I have to do the laundry and clean the toilet before my wife gets back. 

FINIS

Japan’s Monster Mermaid Amabie is Here To Save You From COVID19! (Maybe)

People have different ways of dealing stress and fear, especially during a protracted battle with a worldwide pandemic. Some Japanese are claiming that superstition saved us (as opposed to the two cloth masks per person promised by Prime Minister Abe), along with praying at Shinto shrines and guzzling detoxifying green tea.

As fears over a Covid-19 ‘infection explosion’ very gradually recede in the rearview mirror, more people are in a mood to agree with these theories.

Your lucky lady

After all, rural and traditional Japan remained largely unscathed by Covid-19, and these are the areas where people routinely visit local shrines, carry omamori (お守り・talismans), ask for ‘oharai’ (お祓い) –which is the practice of having a Shinto priest chase out bad spirits and demons lurking in one’s immediate vicinity, and down a lot of tea after the ceremony.  If you get a Buddhist priest to do it, it’s yakubarai (厄払い). Add to that list, the drawing of an Amabie and posting it on social media. You may have just the armor needed for pandemic warfare. 


A what? An Amabie (pronounced ama-bi-eh) is a yokai (妖怪)which can be translated as apparition, phantom creature or monster. She has the appearance of a three-legged mermaid with a beak in lieu of a mouth and she’s been around since the mid-19th century, according to Edo-Period documents. Though the typical Japanese yokai is often grotesque and loves to play pranks on humans, the Amabie is a beach chick that emerges from the sea to foretell epidemics. If you carry around her picture, she can ward off mass contagion and the effect is doubled if you draw it yourself. A lot of people in Japan and elsewhere have tried their hand at drawing Amabie, and she now has a definite presence on social media, on #Amabiechallenge and others. 

Strangely enough, the Amabie has become a thing that may actually work. As of May 20th, the Japanese government has lifted the State of Emergency order for most of the nation, excluding the Tokyo metropolitan area. But the capitol city has been reporting less than 20 new infection cases for a week. Day care centers are talking about reopening as early as the 25th. Some local bars are welcoming customers again, even if masks are mandatory and draft beer is a thing of the past. Yes, the economy is in shambles and there’s nothing on TV but at least we’re seeing a light at the end of the tunnel. 

This isn’t the first time modern Japan has turned to superstition and yokai for solace and guidance. The late manga artist Shigeru Mizuki, creator of the mega hit yokai manga series  Ge ge ge no Kitaro (Spooky Kitaro) had always held that the yokai was what kept Japan from teetering over the edge into the abyss of disaster. Without their presence and powers, he said, the archipelago would just be a dreary sinkhole of greed and corruption. The yokai is a familiar figure in Japanese folklore, and some date back a thousand years. Some function as avatars for Shinto gods. Others do mischief and love to disrupt people as they go about their lives. The yokai can be friendly too, and will make good companions, as long as you respect tradition, revere nature and refrain from harming others. 


Mizuki hails from Tottori prefecture, a very traditional region that has racked up a total of three– count ’em three!–Covid 19 infection cases and zero deaths so maybe his take on the yokai was right. Mizuki’s own illustration of the Amabie has been posted on social media since mid-March, courtesy of Mizuki Production, and apparently this has been printed out and carried inside wallets or folded into omamori sachets. A friend of mine in Tottori reports that local reverence for Mizuki has soared, and the 800 meter long “Mizuki Shigeru Road” in his hometown of Sakaiminato, which is marked with yokai statues and merchandise shops, has seen a lot of (masked) tourist action. These people hang out bv the various yokai figuresto take photos, and leave little notes of prayer for the pandemic to end. 

Shigeru Mizuki died in 2017 at the age of 93 but if he were around today, he would no doubt have had plenty to say about the government’s handling of the pandemic. Mizuki was a WWII veteran who lost an arm in combat in Papua New Guinea, and the harrowing experience shaped his views on authority and Japanese society. After the war Mizuki struggled to survive before settling down to write manga, which he continued doing right up until his death. For many years, he could barely make ends meet but his career took off when the Kitaro series hit prime time TV in the late 1960s. However, success didn’t turn his head or soften his judgement on what he saw as crimes committed by the Japanese government, be it throwing the nation into war, or going whole hog on nuclear energy. His manga was never cute or very accessible – they depicted the Japanese as desperate and conniving, with caricatured features like bad teeth, squinty eyes and terrible posture. His portraits of the typical Japanese male were so unflattering they resembled the Yellow Peril posters propagated by the US military during WWII. According to Mizuki, the only way these unattractive Japanese could achieve a slightly higher level of humanity, was to befriend a yokai

Mizuki’s drawing of the Amabie though, is soft and friendly-looking. She really does seem concerned about the welfare of this archipelago. It’s not a bad picture to carry around, especially in a time when everyone is masked and avoiding eye contact as if the very act of acknowledging another person is a risky undertaking. If a picture of a three-legged mermaid is going to make people feel better about each other, it should probably be framed and put up inside the Diet building. 

THE BADGER AND THE STARS (a poem)

by Shoko Plambeck
The day my birth records were sent to a Shinto shrine
my father skinned a badger and hung its coat above my crib.
The tale of my birth supposedly unfolds like this:
The day I was born the stars were restless
and the earth was tossing a blizzard thick as cream
through the Nebraskan plains.
My father was on his way to work in his red Chevy
when he came across a dash of brown,
obscured by the snow like a fainting spell.
He shot it, thinking it was a soft furred marten,
but what he killed instead was a badger.
The badger of the plains. Symbol of earth, grounding
and consistency; finding her in such weather conditions
was like the moon waxing when it should wane.


Still, he put the creature in the back of his truck.
When he got to work, there was a call from my mother:
It’s two months early, but I’m going into labour.
My grandparents got the same call and flew in from Japan.
When my obaachan first saw me she announced,
This girl will be named Shoko, spirit in flight,
and years later when I moved from place to place,
hobby to hobby, man to man,
she’d lament naming me so irresponsibly.
In a shoebox, I went home.


The badger skin was nailed above my crib
and my birth records were sent to the monk at the family
Shinto shrine. The results came weeks later. My mother read
as I drank eagerly from her; she herself was a dark star
but at twenty-four she could not even imagine
what that would mean. Only years later
would she say that the badger had to be a mother
and the unimaginable must have happened
to make her split into the fatal snow.


My mother read: The child will need to seek grounding.
In the moment she was born the stars were restless
and they will reverberate through her blood forever.
Before she could read any further,
my grandmother snatched the fortune out of her hand
and read: bright as Sirius, inconstant as Mercury.

******

This poem was originally posted in Matador Review but was reposted with permission of the author.

Shoko Plambeck is a writer, traveler, and poet. She studied English literature at Temple University in Tokyo and the  University of Vermont. She currently lives in Japan but can’t wait to move back to the US to be with her cockatiel and poetry books again. 

Spring Healing: An Art Exhibit–last day March 28th

Tokyo Art Studio Launches ‘Spring Healing’ Joint Art Exhibition

Featuring 14 Japan-Based Artists & Over 100 Pieces of Artwork

With Spring comes new beginnings! Tokyo Art Studios is thrilled to announce their inaugural exhibition, titled “Spring Healing”, which features over 100 artworks by 14 emerging and established artists based in Japan. The “Spring Healing” exhibition runs until March 28 2021.

The exhibition highlights artist experiences in Japan using varying aesthetics relating to their mediums, including oils, acrylic, watercolor, illustrations, silkscreen, and photography. The artists hail from Japan and around the world, but all call Japan home today. The themes of Japan’s nature, arts and society, are woven into all the pieces.

All artworks can be viewed online at a later date but come see them in person while you can. Some featured artists include:

Johnna Slaby

Johnna Slaby is an abstract artist born and raised in Japan, and currently works between Japan, the UK, and the US. Utilizing various materials from acrylics to coffee, she creates abstract pieces that are reminiscent of a late-afternoon coffee or the golden hour near a river. Through the experiences and stories that she comes across during her travels and life, she works them into pieces to create memories people can see. From her large canvas pieces to her intimate paper studies, she dissects both mundane and profound moments of life, continuing to ask, What does it mean to be alive?

Shinjiro Tanaka

Shinjiro Tanaka is an artist who expresses the infinite possibilities of simple lines by combining contradictory elements such as calmness and passion, past and future, and life and death. His works are not limited to canvas painting, but also include murals, apparel, three-dimensional objects, and digital art. Born in CA in 1985, he graduated from Keio University in 2008 and moved to NYC after working for Dentsu. He brings a variety of experiences to his art, including working as a music producer’s assistant and Performing with Nile Rodgers and CHIC, launching the apparel brand BSWK, and performing at Heisei Nakamura-za in New York. After returning to Japan, he held his first solo exhibition “FACE” in 2018; at the end of 2018, he performed live art on the streets of New York for 30 days, and the following year held his solo exhibition “NYC STREET ART PROJECT”. The same year, he won the ART BATTLE TOKYO competition and has been working unconventionally in Japan and abroad, exhibiting at a gallery in London and creating murals on the streets.

Keiko Takeda

Keiko Takeda’s practice allows her to express her favorite places and unknown corners of the world through colors and shapes. Each subject is made warmer with her brush as she believes that colors have feelings that embody our own emotions. Keiko has shown her work in many exhibitions, both solo and group shows.

Marie Ikura

Marie Ikura studied art, and more specifically painting, while at Tama Art University before becoming a professional artist whose signature style is based on live art. Often, Marie creates live paintings that share space, time, and music with the people present where her work is ever-evolving as the paint scatters, making sounds such as “voice of color”. In addition, she engages in participatory art like wearing art or consuming art. Her live work has taken her to regions in Europe and Southeast Asia.

About Tokyo Art Studio

A new Tokyo gallery which opened this March (2021) – Tokyo Art Studio strives to provide a platform for the global community of emerging artists based in Japan. Through exhibitions and programming, TAS encourages our community to creatively connect with one another through the power of art and dialogue. To learn more about Tokyo Art Studio

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The Studio is located at 3-17 -12 Minami Azabu, Minato-ku, Tokyo

Visits outside of exhibit times are by appointment only.

Email and questions or request for interviews to contact@TokyoArtStudioGallery.com.

“Nothing says love like menstrual blood.” In Japan, V-Day chocolates are really special

Japan has a unique way of celebrating western holidays. On Christmas Eve, men and women check into Japan’s ubiquitous, pay by the hour, slightly kinky boutique hotels, also known as  “love hotels” and celebrate the event with raucous but tasteful intercourse.

On Valentine’s Day, the women buy chocolates for men. The men reciprocate a month later on White Day, a candy industry invented holiday, by saying thanks for their expensive chocolate gifts with cheap white chocolates.

On Valentine's Day in Japan, women give chocolate to men. And some women put a little blood and sweat into making home-made chocolates for their true love. Metaphorically and literally.
On Valentine’s Day in Japan, women give chocolate to men. And some women put a little blood and sweat into making home-made chocolates for their true love. Metaphorically and literally.

The whole holiday is a huge headache for many Japanese women who not only buy chocolates for the most important lover in their life, which may not necessarily be their boyfriend, or husband, or even a man at all–but they also have to buy and give chocolates to work acquaintances and close male friends. The chocolates that you give to your lover are called 本命チョコ (true love chocolates). Those you give out of obligation (義理) are called giri-choco (義理チョコ).

Love, blood, chocolate and a love hotel is all you need. Happy Valentine's Day in Japan!
Love, blood, chocolate and a love hotel is all you need. Happy Valentine’s Day in Japan! Hey and the costume rentals look amazing. Notice the lovely Disneyesque fonts.

 

Well, some women in Japan, and probably a very small number of them,  in order to spice up their home-made chocolates with a little extra something, or give their store bought chocolates  something really special--are reportedly (self-reportedly) putting a little of their own blood and sweat into the cooking of gooey sweets. Literally. Sometimes body fluids such as blood, sweat, and spit are the secret ingredient in chocolates given by Japanese girls to the boy of their dreams. If they aren’t really doing it, they are at least certainly tweeting about it.  One sneaky chef recommends that people use frozen raspberry puree in their home made chocolates to disguise the blood’s taste and appearance. (I always knew there was something about raspberries I didn’t like.)

Japanese girls and women have been tweeting about mixing blood, spit and other bodily fluids in the chocolates for their "true loves" as a sort of magic. How many really have? Who knows?
Japanese girls and women have been tweeting about mixing blood, spit and other bodily fluids in the chocolates for their “true loves” as a sort of magic. How many really have? Who knows?

Obviously, some of this self-reporting is dubious and simply black humor but it’s not altogether an unknown practice and reports of it date back at least to 2011.

There seems to be a primitive belief in Japan that one’s blood or parts of the body have magical powers of attraction and that by having your true love consume it, that they will become a part of you or inseparable. In other words, if you are the one in love but not your partner (片思い), having him drink your blood is believed to make you fall in love with each other equally. (両思い).

The insertion of bodily fluids into chocolates is considered to be a sort of black magic (黒魔術) or a spell/majinai(呪い). Or perhaps, women just do it because a popular website reported it as new trend. In Japan, what is reported to be a trend, often becomes a trend based on that report. The news makes the news. Of course, one respondent to JSRC explained her reasons for putting her blood in the chocolate as simply, “I thought it would make the chocolate taste better.”  (血液を入れたら美味しくなるかと思ったから)

Ideally, says the blogosphere, if you are going to lace your true love’s chocolates with blood, menstrual blood is the most powerful. For those women to be having their period during Valentine’s Day is an auspicious sign.  Women are advised that if they don’t have blood to give, to try fingernails, skin, or other materials from their own body.

We agree that the “bloody valentines” are not a trend, and  probably only made only by a fringe element in Japan but there you go. Japan apparently isn’t the only place where the magical attractive powers of a woman’s blood in the food of her man are supposed to to make him a love slave. This is allegedly a common voodoo belief as well. However, in Japan they seem to be more methodical in how to do it, including recipe suggestions—even if some of that is in jest.

It goes without saying that consuming the blood of another person is probably not healthy. And the jury is out on the efficacy of chocolate’s sterilization of harmful viruses in the red elixir of life.  So for you lucky guys in Japan getting a box of chocolates from your “true love” or would be “true love” ; be sure to get vaccinated first and consume carefully. If you suddenly find yourself feeling strongly for your lover in what was once a one-sided relationship, well then you’ll know something magical is happening.

Happy Valentine’s Day.

Note: This article was originally written without one tasteless pop-culture reference to horror/slasher film “My Blood Valentine.”  Angela Kubo, food writer, gracefully contributed to this report.